Star Tribune, Feb. 17

War authorization needs amending

The deepening depravity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) can be read in recent headlines — or seen in grisly videos released by the terrorist group.

The latest crime came not from ISIL strongholds in Iraq or Syria, but from the failed state of Libya. On the shores of the Mediterranean, ISIL beheaded 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt. This obscenity capped a month of carnage, including confirmation of the killing of American Kayla Jean Mueller; a caged Jordanian air force pilot being burned alive, and two Japanese men beheaded. There have been other multinational victims, including aid workers and journalists, and scores more Iraqis and Syrians have been killed by ISIL as it swept up broad swaths of those nations.

The globalization of ISIL's victims and the group's metastasizing geographic footprint demand a global response. The United States, as part of a multinational coalition, has been in the fight since summer 2014. An updated legal framework for taking lethal action is long overdue. And U.S. forces — indeed the world — should know that despite their differences, Congress and the White House strongly back their efforts.

But as with most presidential proposals, Congress seems split on President Obama's draft authorization for use of military force. Many Democrats, in an understandable desire to keep the country out of yet another major Mideast war, fear the authorization is not restrictive enough to prevent mission creep.

Many Republicans, conversely, think it would unnecessarily limit not just Obama's options, but those of his successor, since it would limit U.S. involvement to three years and impact the next president. Some also believe that an authorization that signals limits only emboldens an enemy that has none.

Unlike so many Beltway debates that become abstract domestically, let alone globally, this one matters. Allies, and certainly ISIL, are listening. It's imperative to pass an authorization that sends the right signal. Here are some markers:

The three-year limit is arbitrary and unwise. First, it technically might not matter, since Obama plans to retain a 2001 authorization to use military force that Congress granted in the aftermath of 9/11, which the administration has used as the legal basis to fight ISIL. (Obama would repeal the 2002 Iraq war authorization, however.) And the three-year span belies Obama's oft-repeated analysis that it may take years to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIL.

If the point of the time limit is for the next president and Congress to reassess the campaign, that should happen anyway. An artificial date isn't necessary, especially given the fluid nature of the threat. ISIL in its current form didn't even exist three years ago. Three years from now, the group may have become an even bigger threat or, one hopes, it could collapse in that span.

Similarly, to bar "enduring offensive combat operations" takes options off the table. There should be no rush to deploy, and Obama has been quite clear in saying he is not considering sending significant numbers of troops back into Iraq. But it's also important that Congress not codify combat operations.

While a strong signal from the United States is needed, it should not be misinterpreted as an order. Middle Eastern nations need to know that this is their fight. "The United States really has to signal to the region that it is willing to help, but it cannot be the principal opponent of this enemy," said Professor Brian Atwood, former dean of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

There are some encouraging signs from the region. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have already bravely stepped up and, in the case of the Syrian city of Kobani, rolled back ISIL gains. But more is needed from many nations, including an improved Iraqi army, and from nations like Jordan, which has ramped up airstrikes in response to ISIL's killing of its pilot, and Egypt, which struck ISIL targets in Libya in response to Sunday's massacre.

Now it's up to the United States to show its determination. Passing an ill-considered authorization for use of military force — or not passing one at all — would weaken allied resolve and embolden ISIL.


The Free Press of Mankato, Feb. 17

Dayton opens up necessary road debate

Gov. Mark Dayton put his money where his mouth is on transportation funding when he released a county-by-county list of proposed projects in an unprecedented policy move aimed at building support for his plan.

It's a good strategy, but it also clears the way for the necessary and critical debate about the future of the state's roads and bridges, the infrastructure where taxpayers have invested billions of dollars over the years.

Dayton held a news conference Tuesday detailing the plan and arguing these projects won't happen if the Legislature doesn't approve his proposal for road funding. ... Republican leaders chimed in right away saying the projects would also get done under their plan, which invests a lower amount.

But Dayton's plan would get the projects done more quickly and that is the critical issue. The 600-project list includes at least some roads that are in what MnDOT describes as "very poor" condition. Roads that degrade to that level are much more expensive to fix than fixing roads in only "poor" condition. MnDOT has estimated that a road in very poor condition will cost $1 million per mile to fix while other roads not quite as bad would cost $500,000 per mile.

Dayton also was criticized for playing politics with the road funding as some described it as a way to dangle projects in front of constituencies to build support. If that's his strategy, so be it. That's the way democracy is supposed to work.

Minnesota road funding has often been approved throughout history under a cloak of secrecy, with leaders of both parties saying detailing road projects would not only politicize the process but take that power away from the experts who know the road needs.

The whole idea that road funding decisions aren't or shouldn't be politicized has long been a fallacy. Remember the override veto deal that suddenly brought funding for completion of a state highway project to a certain southern Minnesota legislator's district?

Dayton is just being more upfront about the political nature of road funding. It's important, however, that the list was developed by MnDOT experts and engineers. It's their best take on what needs to be done and they offer bottom-line reasons for those decisions. They set priorities.

The projects were selected based on those critically in need of repair, those in very poor condition. MnDOT reports that 4,370 miles of Minnesota roads will be at the end of their useful life in the next 10 years, thereby in the so called worse MnDOT road rating of "very poor."

The plan also makes longer term fixes on current road projects so they will not need fixing in a few years. It also funds a prevention program to avoid roads falling into such high degrees of disrepair they cost more in the long run.

There are also plans for strategic expansion of some highways that will help move commerce and reduce money lost by the private sector via traffic congestion. The governor's plan also allocated $1.6 billion to the Corridors of Commerce plan that operates with bonding money and has been used to help fund the expansion of Highway 14 in southern Minnesota.

About 72 percent of the projects on the list are in greater Minnesota while the rest are in the seven county metro area.

One might argue the governor is trying to get the votes of Republican House members from those rural Minnesota districts they won during last election, by suggesting there are projects that will benefit their constituents. That's a legitimate argument. That's how it's supposed to work.

If those legislators have a better plan to fund roads and that will fund 80 percent of the projects instead of 100 percent, it will be good those constituents know that.

Dayton's list leads the way for an important debate. It's not any more political than it has been in the past, but it is more open.


Winona Daily News, Feb. 18

Bipartisan bill is victory for democracy

Here's cause for celebration: A good-government initiative was reaffirmed in St. Paul last week — and it was reaffirmed in a bipartisan fashion. Even in politics, every great once in a while, common sense truly can rule the day.

When Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chaired the government-operations committee in the Minnesota House a couple of years ago, he proposed a rule that was roundly criticized by the minority party. It seemed like a fairly simple idea: Legislators should file all amendments to pending legislation at least 24 hours before consideration.

Why is that important?

That 24-hour period allowed everyone — legislators, lobbyists and, most important, every Minnesotan — the opportunity to view, research, consider and question the amendment.

When last-minute amendments are flying around the floor in the middle of the night with no time to study, the public was cut out of what should be an open, transparent process. In addition, legislators honestly didn't always know exactly what they were voting on, either.

That's not a good way to develop sound public policy.

A funny thing happened with the changing of the guard in St. Paul. The Republicans suddenly seem to think that the 24-hour rule is not a gag order that prevents public input or stifles legislative operations.

Yes, we understand that the two parties can't resist jabbing at each other about who gets credit or blame on this issue. Frankly, we're far less interested in credit than in results.

In this case, the result of the 24-hour rule means democracy scores a victory.

While we don't expect the Republicans to send thank-you notes to the DFL member from Winona, we're glad that the rhetoric blew over and that common sense prevailed.

There's absolutely no need for last-minute, middle-of-the-night amendments. In fact, there's every reason to be suspicious. Sunshine and fresh air always make for better policy and better democracy.

Thank goodness, both parties voted for sunshine with this House rule.